Earlier this week, Pat Fitzgerald told the Vanderbilt passing offense to “bring it.” But it was his own defense, not the Commodores’ offense, that got the memo Saturday night.
The same Northwestern defense that made Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib the nation’s leading passer last week stymied Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers for 86 second half passing yards — and the entire Commodores offense to just three second-half points — en route to a 23-13 win.
“I thought the defense played outstanding,” said running back Venric Mark.
Mark knows a little something about outstanding. He rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown against Vanderbilt and was the team’s best offensive player for the second straight week. But this week, he and the offense were bailed out by the defense.
Statistically, the NU defense did a full 180 from last week. The Wildcats gave up 470 passing yards against Syracuse, and just 318 total yards against Vanderbilt. They allowed Syracuse to convert on 12-of-20 first downs, but allowed Vanderbilt to only convert 4-of-15, with two of those coming on the first drive of the game.
Which is the real Northwestern defense? Well, Fitzgerald sure hopes it was the one that showed up Saturday night.
“When you look at the performance of our defense today, I think it was indicative of how we played for about 45 minutes a week ago,” Fitzgerald said. “Last week was a little bit of an aberration, I hope, for our defense.”
Of course the secondary got most of the blame for last week’s defensive struggles — and deservedly so — but the defense’s fate this year could ride on the shoulders of the defensive front seven. The secondary won’t be great this year, but as long as it can manage the game, NU’s defense has a chance in every game if its defensive front — particularly the defensive line — plays like it did Saturday night.
You would probably have to go back to the Nebraska game from last year to find a performance for that unit comparable to Saturday night.
NU had 3 sacks, 8 tackles-for-loss, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries and 2 quarterback hurries against the Commodores. Tyler Scott, in particular, had a monster game, totaling 6 tackles, a sack, 2 tackles for loss and a forced fumble; a game Fitzgerald said was probably “statistically” the best of his career.
But Scott wasn’t alone. NU desperately needed veterans Quentin Williams and Brian Arnfelt to step up on the defensive line this year, and both of them came up with big plays — Arnfelt finished with 4 tackles, a sack, 2 tackles-for-loss and a forced fumble, while Williams also forced a fumble. Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo followed up his starting debut at Syracuse with a team-high 10 tackles, plus a sack, 3 tackles-for-loss and a pass break-up. The Cats even got contributions from their young guys, as Williams praised the play of true freshman defensive end Dean Lowry, who had a fumble recovery, a pass break-up and a quarterback hurry.
When Fitzgerald talks about a team win, this is what he means.
Consistency will be the name of the game from here on out — NU can’t afford many more two-week periods like this one and expect to keep winning. But we’ve finally seen the potential this defense has — the potential Fitzgerald has harped on throughout the spring and fall camp.
Saturday night, the Wildcats’ defense “brought it.” And against all odds, the defense, not the offense, is the reason NU is 2-0.
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